Lucy Webb Hayes’ moral views were shaped by strong familial influences. When she was around 2 years old, her abolitionist father, Dr. James Webb, traveled to his family home to free the slaves he had inherited, and was fatally infected when he tended to those suffering from cholera. Her mother, Maria Cook Webb, rejected the suggestion that she sell those slaves to support her now-fatherless children, noting she would rather clean for others to raise money. And it was Lucy’s maternal grandfather, an Ohio state legislator named Isaac Cook, who spurred her dislike of alcohol by having his grandchildren sign a pledge to abstain from drinking.
Lucy met her future husband while she was a student at Ohio Wesleyan Preparatory Academy in Delaware, Ohio; then a Harvard Law School graduate visiting his hometown, Hayes was intrigued by the “bright-eyed” and “clever” girl his mother wanted him to meet, though at 15 she was too young. The romantic sparks flew when they were both guests at a wedding party in 1850, and Hayes presented her with the ring he uncovered in a piece of wedding cake. When they were engaged the following summer, Lucy commemorated the occasion by placing the wedding cake ring on her fiancé’s finger. They were married at the Webb family home on December 30, 1852.
Lucy encouraged Hayes’s participation in the Civil War, but she endured a major scare when he was seriously wounded at the Battle of South Mountain in September 1862. Given the wrong information about his whereabouts, she frantically searched the Washington, D.C. hospitals before finally locating him in Middletown, Maryland. Lucy made sure to accompany her recovered husband to successive encampments, where she contributed by helping to care for the sick and wounded. Her efforts were so appreciated by the soldiers that she earned the nickname “Mother of the Regiment.”
The enthusiastic Lucy appealed to just about every constituent as first lady. She loved animals and enjoyed the presence of children, for whom she began the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. But she was perhaps most widely admired for the attention she devoted to the less fortunate. Lucy made regular visits to the Columbia Institute for the Deaf and the National Soldier’s Home for disabled veterans, and arranged for flowers to be delivered from her greenhouses to the local children’s hospital. She also personally raised funds for Washington’s poor communities by nudging cabinet members for contributions, leading by example when she and Hayes donated approximately $1,000 in January 1880.
While in the White House, the pair toured New England and the South in 1877 and the northern Midwest the following year. Their most famous excursion was a 72-day journey through Utah, Washington, California and New Mexico in 1880, marking the first time a sitting president and first lady had visited the West Coast. It wasn’t altogether a luxurious trip; the rail line through New Mexico was incomplete, forcing the Hayeses to ride in horse-drawn wagons for three days until they reached another rail head. They were then accompanied by a military guard for another 60 miles as they traversed a dangerous territory controlled by Apache Indians and outlaw cowboys.
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